Developing a Learning Culture

Do you have a learning culture in your classroom and school? This might seem to be a pointless question, schools are for learning. That’s what students go there for. Learning is what happens in a school. Isn’t it?

Ponder this: Do your students arrive to class learning ready? Do they have note-taking tools ready? Are they actively taking notes or passively writing everything down with no idea of the content or even context? Are they waiting to be spoon-fed or come to your class with questions and curiosities they want filled? Do they know what they are learning about and why?

Increasingly, I have been visiting schools and find students turning up without note-taking tools, even when they have been asked to bring them. I also find students are often reluctant to take notes and maybe even slightly cynical that a guest speaker might have information that could help them. This shows a lack of a learning culture in a school. Perhaps another sign of a lack of learning culture is the front row being empty.

Take some time to self-reflect 

Do you turn up to learning opportunities with note-taking tools, ready to learn? Are you curious about what you could learn? Are you keen to try new ideas? Do you take small, responsible risks and grow as a teacher, as a person? Or do you have what Carol Dweck has coined a fixed mindset? Are you stuck in your ways, cynical to new ideas and/or scared of failure? Conversely, a growth mindset means you are keen to learn, persevere in the face of failure, reflect on and embrace challenges and accept feedback as an opportunity to grow. Are you personally and professionally reinforcing a learning culture in your school and classroom?

The power of role modelling

When children are young, they watch and learn from people around them, both consciously and unconsciously. It is important to remember teenagers do the same. How you act as a teacher is noticed by students. When a guest speaker comes to work with your students, do you sit at the back, appearing disinterested and complete your own work? Don’t get me wrong – we often feel time-poor and try to eke out more time by multi-tasking or make choices about our own participation levels. Yet, consider the perspective of the students watching the significant adults in the room appearing disengaged. What subconscious messages does this give to students? The speaker and content are not important. Adults don’t have to pay attention. The work I am doing is more important than the student’s learning.

Be a role model for learning. Demonstrate what a successful learner does in a learning situation. Show interest, take notes, sit with the students, participate in the conversations. Be the student you wish your students were!

Share your learning with students

If you are a learner, share your authentic learning experiences and journey with your students. Share your challenges, struggles, wins and progress alongside their own. Be a role model for learning. Let them see what they feel and experience in their education as a normal part of the process.

Mistaking the power of mistakes

Personally, I love when my ideas and beliefs are shaken and stirred! At the Teachers Matter Book Club, we recently read and explored Bo Hejlskov Elvéns’ book, Disruptive, Stubborn, Out of Control? It has been an eye-opener to me on several topics. For many years I have talked about the power of learning from mistakes. I’ve cited examples such as children learn to walk by falling down and getting back up, and that children need to make mistakes to learn. Bo quotes some fascinating research by Dutch psychologist Anna van Duijvenvoorde et al. In 2008, they discovered that children under the age of 15 don’t learn from what they are doing wrong – they learn from success. It’s the small wins over time that build their learning capacity, not the mistakes. Her research goes on to state that from the age of 15 years old, students learn from failure, whist students under the age of 11 need copious amounts of success to learn. For students’ in the 11-15 age group it can vary. This makes so much sense to me. A foundation of success makes mistakes easier to handle and learn from.

Learning from Success

Anna’s research parallels that of Ron Ritchhart from the Harvard Project Zero’s findings; focusing on praising the effort, progress and success of a student’s learning and behaviour has a bigger impact on their learning than focusing on grades and marks. They suggest creating a culture where students can see themselves getting ‘better’ at the content, skill, behaviour or learning you are teaching. Give them milestones to achieve and tick off. Take time to ask students to consider what they knew, or could do 3 weeks ago, and what they can do or know now, in order to demonstrate their progress. Show them the progressions in the learning progress. Give them exemplars as an example of where they are headed in their learning. Celebrate progress and the efforts made by your students. Use rubrics to give students choice and opportunities to extend themselves. Focus on success.

Understand the learning process

When students are immersed in a positive learning culture, they understand how learning occurs in their brain and know multiple ways to cause learning. It is not something that happened magically or passively for most students. Gretchen Wegner has developed a model called ‘The Study Cycle’ which explains a powerful learning process. In a quick summary, Gretchen explains the three steps to learning.

Step 1: Encoding information in the brain – this is the input of information known as learning. Most commonly this process is started by the teacher.

Step 2: Retrieval of the information. How much can the student recall, remember, know, or do with the information from step one. There is likely to be a gap between what went in and what comes out.

Step 3: Relearn the information you don’t know and do this in a different way. This leads back to step one, of inputting or encoding the information again (in a different way.)

Teach students how their memory works, as tests and exams are essentially calling upon memory of what has been learned. Share James Nottingham’s Learning Pit as a model to understand the struggle of learning. Explicitly teach learning and thinking dispositions which help them in the challenging times of learning. These might include persisting, thinking flexibly, responsible risk-taking and metacognition which are four of the 16 Habits of Mind from Professor Art Costa and Dr Bena Kallick. These behaviours and dispositions underpin a strong learning culture.

Ask for feedback

Check-in with your students and ask them for feedback on how you as a teacher might create a better learning culture for them? It is a brave and growth mindset focused teacher who asks, “what am I doing well?” and “what can I improve on?”

Reinforce and praise the behaviours you want

Firstly, share your expectations of what an effective learner does in your classroom. When students arrive early to class, praise this. Make a point of congratulating students who are learning ready with pens and paper out at the beginning of the lesson. Welcome questions from students, instead of treating them as an interruption of your teaching. Work on knowing your students. This is particularly important in a secondary school as research shows having positive and strong relationships with friends and teachers is one of the main reasons students stay at school.

In what other ways might you reinforce and develop a strong learning culture in your classroom and school?


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Published on Saturday, August 14th, 2021, under Learning, Success, Teacher Effectiveness

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

4 Responses to “Developing a Learning Culture”

  1. Sabina armstrong says:

    In our current learning environment we are trying to challenge staff to reflect on their practice and to build thinking classrooms where learning is exciting. This article is so pertinent and to our direction and perfect because it comes from observation and research. We will use it to support the way forward. Looking forward to more articles !!

  2. Deborah Eastham says:

    Thanks Karen,
    This blog clearly highlights the importance of making sure that learning is actually supported by providing the right culture for it to take place effectively. We can no longer assume that it is happening, I know that is not always the case, we need to be explicit about it and ensure that our teachers are clear about setting the students up for learning. I have shared this with the leadership team today and will also share with everyone at our staff meeting tomorrow on google meet (during lockdown level 4). I do know that some staff members really struggle with the concept of reflection as well, this blog will help them include it as part of their mahi. Regards Debs

    • Karen Boyes says:

      I’m delighted you found it useful to reflect upon and discuss. Hope you are well in Level 4.
      rainbows and sunshine Karen

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